A Place To Start – Stretching Under Saddle

Some times we just don’t know where or how to begin. In a recent article (Virtual Horse – A Must See!) I linked to a video showing the biomechanical differences between a horse being hand ridden and forced into a false frame; over flexed in the poll, chin on chest and one allowed to stretch and seek contact, and how that affected the horse’s movement. Following is a short (4 min) video that starts to show how you do the latter.

Video

Though I don’t agree with everything said and shown (such as the reference to and title of video ‘engaging’ the back – why even go there?!), there are some really important things happening in the video that I’d like to point out.

First is the forwardness of the horses. Before anything else can happen, a horse must be forward. No forward, no nothing. That is not going fast, though for some it may appear that way, but rather having a purpose in getting from point A to point B. This is a major issue I often see, horses piddling about, dragging their feet, and otherwise lacking any sort of energy or motivation in their striding. The horse must actively and willingly move forward, be in front of the leg, and stay in front of the leg without being constantly badgered. Once that is achieved, the horse on its own will begin to relax into a rhythmic gait and stretch. This applies to our Western riders as well. You all should be riding forward as shown in the video until the horse has, over time, developed the strength and condition to slow down the stroke of the legs via right and proper engagement. The jog and lope that is so often seen today in the Western ring is an atrocity, but I digress.

A lot of the video shows the horse on the circle. The circle helps to encourage weight to shift back onto the inside hind, which in turn will lift the back and so on. But don’t get stuck in the idea that this can only, or should only, be done on the circle. Alternating between straight lines, circles and changes of direction will keep the horse thinking and thus forward. It will increase suppleness and straightness, and as you make the figure changes it’s a challenge and a check that the horse remain relaxed and rhythmic throughout.

I also liked that Mr. Faerber mentioned the rider lightening their seat and that this work is done primarily in rising trot. ‘Driving’ with your seat to get the horse forward only results in triggering the back to contract and then hollow, as does banging around like a sack of rocks in sitting trot. Of course, some riders also bang down on the horse’s back in rising trot, so the execution of the rising trot by the rider may need to be examined if the horse continues to hollow.

You can not achieve any of what is shown in the video via the use of side reins, draw reins, martingales or any other tack contraption. I repeat: CAN NOT. The horse must be free of restrictive devices including the hand, so put away the tack and lengthen those reins. The horse’s head WILL come down once it is forward, relaxed, and rhythmic, and its back will lift. Note that at the four minute mark a young horse is being longed with side reins on, but those side reins are overly long. They are not restricting the horse in any way. So why use them at all? In this instance it’s for the education of the horse’s mouth, to begin to understand weight in its mouth, and to encourage the horse to be straighter (not over bend) through the neck on the circle.

It’s important to also note the time period given in the video: One year to develop the topline of a horse, and that’s for a horse that hasn’t already developed inverted muscling and poor posture from bad riding and training; those horses are going to require even more time. This is not a process that happens over night, nor can it be fixed in 24 hours. But don’t think you should be riding your horse as in the video every single minute of that year. Stretching is not a static position either on its own nor as part of training. Remember that you should be testing your horse’s development, asking for the poll to lift little by little BY engaging the haunch.   You’ll be doing other exercises and figures, cross training.  And don’t forget, the horse’s haunch should be lowering as that poll lifts, otherwise it’s incorrect.

Even out on a hack, you should be encouraging your horse to stretch, to be forward, relaxed, rhythmic in its gaits, straight and so on.  Horses are not toys and require constant consideration, care and management.  There is joy and pleasure to be found in understanding that.  You can enjoy the horse even while knowing that every step is training mind, body, and soul for better or worse.

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